Sushil Kumar may have pulled out of the next month’s World Championships, but there is no let up in his training. At the Chattarsal Stadium in north Delhi, the two-time Olympic medallist is following a rigorous training regimen sending a strong signal that he is unwilling to call time on his career.
A first round defeat at the Asian Games and then his pull-out from the World Championships had given rise to speculation that the 35-year-old is contemplating retirement. Despite the recent low, Sushil’s coach and mentor Guru Satpal is categorical that Sushil is not planning to walk into the sunset without having another shot at Olympic glory in 2020.
“The reason why he has pulled out of World Championships is because the quota places for the Tokyo Olympics will start next year. He does not want to risk any injuries which he might pick up while competing in the World Championships this year. We want Sushil to be at the top of his fitness level next year to make it to the Olympics,” reasons Satpal in a chat with Firstpost. “He is training for around seven to eight hours every day and the desire for a third Olympic medal is what keeps him motivated.”
Hundreds of miles away on the wrestling mat at JSW Academy in Bengaluru, Jitender Kumar is sweating it out. Sushil Kumar’s pull-out has meant that this 24-year-old from Haryana is a late replacement in the 74kg category and will board the flight to Budapest for his maiden appearance at the World Championships.
“I came to know about me replacing Sushil a few days ago. The feeling is strange because I took to wrestling inspired by what Sushil had achieved and to represent the country as his replacement is a huge thing for me,” says Jitender.
“I was fourteen years when I first saw Sushil winning an Olympic medal in Beijing. Few days later he visited our akhada and it transformed my life. I wanted to become a wrestler like him,” adds Jitender, who is currently training with one of the current heroes of Indian wrestling Bajrang Punia. Punia’s Georgian coach Shako Benitidis is overseeing the training of both these wrestlers.
“Shako has been working on my technique, especially on my speed and leg defence,” says the burly wrestler who competes in the 74kg class. Jitender has got the better of Praveen Rana, another prominent wrestler in the 74kg category, in a couple of trials prompting the Wrestling Federation of India officials to ask him to be mentally prepared for the World Championships. Jitender was in the fray for a berth in the 2018 Commonwealth Games, but he was beaten by Sushil Kumar in the trials. Sushil went on to win gold at the Gold Coast CWG.
Jitender had shot into prominence with a gold medal in the 2012 Nationals in Gonda, but then came a cruel blow. He faced a two-year ban when he failed a dope test. He claims to have taken an energy drink, unaware of its contents.
“Those two years were a nightmare as I could not take part in any competitions. I was lucky to have a support system which consisted of my father and my childhood coach Jaiveer Lohchab. Since I could not participate in any official tournaments conducted by the WFI, I used to be a regular at the dangals staged in the rural areas of Haryana. It kept me in the game and I won over twelve Bharat Kesri and Bharat Kumar crowns. I made a comeback after completing my ban at the National Games in 2015,” recounts Jitender.
But the towering presence of Sushil and Narsingh Yadav in his weight category meant despite his impressive frame of over six feet, Jitender was always overshadowed by them. “Hopefully a good performance in the World Championships will help him to step away from the shadows to prominence. His biggest quality, a hallmark from his junior days, is his ability to fight without fear, undaunted by the reputation of his opponents,” says his childhood coach Jaiveer.
It’s his monk-like devotion to the sport by cutting himself off from all the trappings of the modern life that Jitender believes has helped him reach this stage and he is not going to squander it. So the youngster refrains from even using a mobile phone. “Bajrang has been a big influence and he has taught me so much about my game. I am fortunate that I got to spend a lot of time with him in the camp,” says Jitender.
At the World Championships, Jitender will face tough opposition from the likes of recently crowned World No 1 Frank Chamizo from Italy, reigning World Champion Jordan Burroughs from USA and Bekzod Abdurakhmonov from Uzbekistan. “Fighting the top wrestlers from the world has been a dream and hopefully I will live up to my expectations,” signs off Jitender.